On July 16, more than 120 pilots gathered at the California State Fair in Sacramento to usher in a new era in tech sports: drone racing.
Teams from across the country, and indeed the world, competed on what’s best described as an oversized dog agility course, maneuvering their drones at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. Quadcopters no larger than a dinner plate zoomed between obstacles, often traveling faster sideways than forward. Needless to say, the crashes were spectacular.
Remote aircraft racing is hardly new, but the use of first-person view. or FPV, cameras and headsets puts the pilots back in the cockpits. With no people at risk, the courses can be more challenging, the maneuvers more daring. The cameras capture footage that makes “Star Wars” pod racing look tame and rivals any racing video game.
Races of this nature are now cropping up across the country, including ones hosted by a regional club based in New England.
An Australian duo, pilot Chad Nowak and spotter Mark Cocquio, won this year’s title in Sacramento with their customized quadcopter. In competition they work as a team, with Nowak’s cockpit vision restricted to whichever direction the craft happens to be pointing. Much like in many forms of car racing, Cocquio serves as a navigator, keeping track of the course and traffic. They hope to someday earn a living from racing, picking up sponsorships like any extreme athlete.
Yet despite $25,000 in prize money on the table at last week’s competition, the sport is in its infancy.
Due to current wireless technologies, the races are limited to between six and eight drones, and batteries allow only several minutes of flight.
The Sacramento event was the first big competition of its kind, but groups across the country are fractured, as standards, or classes, vary greatly.
Dave Shevett is chairman of the US Drone Racing Association, an unaffiliated group based in New England. One day, he stumbled across an FPV drone-racing video online and was hooked. Not long after, he formed the USDRA. The group is small, but has been working with clubs in the Northeast to help set guidelines.
“When I got started in this hobby/sport/whatever you want to call it, no one had really tried to organize basic classifications and rules for running a race,” he said in an e-mail. “I decided to set up the organization to act as a sort of clearinghouse reference point for clubs.”
USDRA had held three races; the next one is Saturday in Berlin, Mass.